Over the whistle of a soft February breeze, a musician strummed a sweet melody from his guitar as a street vendor called out “churros, churros!” A group of teens laughed as they ate elotes and other snacks, and a mother nearby held onto her little one’s hand as they walked inside the storied Little Village Discount Mall, the father hurrying behind them.
Adorned with its distinctive floor-to-ceiling Mexican flag, the shopping center is located in the plaza next to the emblematic Little Village arch — the icon of the Mexican community in Chicago, also known as the Mexico of the Midwest — and for the past 30 years has been a cultural centerpiece for the neighborhood. The mall is a replica of un tianguis, a Mexican market.
It’s brimming with quinceañera dresses, boots and sombreros, religious items and even live birds. “There’s items that you can’t find anywhere else, or at least, not all in the same place,” said Kocoy Malagon, a vendor at the mall.
But beyond items in an old building, there are dozens of stories of resiliency and love that have led immigrant families, some undocumented, to establish businesses there — for many, it’s their only livelihood. However, as the immigrant community has grown older, and the younger generation takes root, the slow but steady gentrification of the neighborhood has been inevitable.
After more than two years of uncertainty, Novak Development, the new owner of the plaza, announced it had reached a deal to extend the lease of only one of the mall’s two operators, closing one side of the shopping center indefinitely, meaning nearly half of the 150 vendors who make up the Discount Mall will be evicted.
Malagon, one of the 80 vendors who has to leave, has until March 26 to vacate her shop. She was one of the merchants who galvanized fellow merchants in 2020 to rally the community in their support when they learned that Novak had purchased the plaza for $17.5 million and had different plans for the shopping center.
For Malagon, losing the mall has never been just about losing money, standing up to a high-profile developer, or figuring out which political leader is on their side, she said. “It is about a space that has been a source of income to hundreds of families that make up the culture of this community,” she said. “It’s the mecca of the Mexicans in the city, a haven for many who have just arrived because we speak Spanish and we have the items that remind them of home.”
Little Village is home to 71,000 people, 80% of whom are Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census. Mexican Americans began moving to the Southwest Side neighborhood in the 1970s, and today the commercial strip on West 26th Street is the second-highest-grossing shopping and tax revenue hub in the city after downtown’s Michigan Avenue, earning the nickname “the second Magnificent Mile.” The neighborhood’s Mexican Independence Parade on Sept. 26 attracts more than half a million participants, residents and visitors to the community every year, organizers say.
The plaza, 3115 W. 26th St., houses a Walgreens, Esperanza Health Center and La Baguette Bakery, which are all expected to remain in the plaza under the new ownership, along with the Discount Mall, which is operated by two leasing companies. Pilsen Plaza Corp., which is staying, is owned by business owner Kyunhee Park. The other one, P.K. Mall Inc., operates the side of the mall where 80 vendors have set up shop.
In a letter to the merchants, P.K. Mall management said that since 1991 it had been able to offer “below market-value rents and short-term agreements with little to no credit history, in order to allow local families, many of whom are immigrants, to start and build sustainable businesses with minimum risk.”
Under Novak’s terms for the operator, that was no longer an option, according to the letter.
The new landlord’s proposed rent increase “would have made it impossible for us to continue providing the same value and support to our vendors for which we have always strove.”
“We were unable to secure a viable solution that would have allowed us to continue operating in a way that aligned with our core mission,” the letter said.
Malagon and other disheartened vendors gathered Feb. 16. to announce that they will continue to stand strong, hoping to persuade Novak to change its plans and find a way to allow all — not just half — of the vendors to stay.
“They’re not directly forcing us to leave, but rather pricing us out of here by raising the rent,” said Juan Zarate, whose family has three stores on the side of the mall that will be closing. “They know we can’t pay that much.”
Jake Paschen, the executive vice president of Novak Development, said that despite various conversations, the company could not reach a deal with P.K. Mall. Paschen said that contrary to the controversy that surrounded the initial purchase of the plaza, Novak did not intend to replace the Discount Mall.
“Pretty early on, we recognized the value of these Discount Mall operators and the Discount Mall in itself, so we decided that we were going to try to keep it and tried to renew both of the leases,” Paschen said.
He said that Park agreed to a “market-rate” rent and to continue licensing spaces in the plaza, which will be transformed with renovations, including new facades, roofs, lighting, landscaping, signage and a new parking lot with an underground stormwater detention system.
“I think that what we asked for is reasonable; it certainly is less than what we could have gotten from other tenants and we were happy to do that,” Paschen said.
Still, the company’s vision has done little to ease the tension and rumors swirling around the mall, Zarate said.
“This cannot be replicated anywhere else,” Zarate said. “Once we’re gone, it’ll never be the same.”
Here are some of their stories that have shaped its culture:
When Martin Santiago, 64, began to have trouble with his eyesight nearly a decade ago, he had to leave his welding job, but still needed to work, he said. So he picked up his guitar and began offering songs for a tip. He became known as ‘El Mariachi de la 26.’
For the past seven years, Santiago has been serenading people that live and visit Little Village. He’s brought his music inside restaurants and stores, but since COVID-19 began, he has spent many of his days outside the mall, offering his songs.
“A lot of people from all over come here and they treat me nice,” he said. Weekends are when he makes the most money. Just enough to help him and his wife buy groceries, he said.
Once the renovations of the plaza begin, he fears he will have to find a new spot in the neighborhood to make music. “I hope the new owners let me continue singing here,” he said.
Every so often he gets hired to play his guitar and sing at family gatherings. Other times he is invited by other musicians to join them in a gig.
His love for music started at a young age when he lived in Puebla, Mexico, but he’s done it as a hobby.
“Me gustaba más trabajar, le echaba ganas al trabajo.” He said he preferred to work and put a lot of effort to better his life and that of his children. “But no one hires me anymore because of my age.”
In a booth crammed with First Communion merchandise, basketball jerseys and hats from Mexican states — “Jalisco,” “Durango,” and “Michoacan” — Margarita Jimenez waits for customers.
“This is a historic place,” she said about the mall. “Just like the arch (on 26th Street), this mall is like the markets you see in Mexico in places like Guadalajara or the D.F. (Distrito Federal, or Mexico City). Here you can see our traditions on display.”
Jimenez began working at the mall in 1994, just weeks after arriving in Chicago from Guerrero, Mexico. For the first five years, she sold clothes for Catholic sacraments, then sold regular clothes for the next 10 years. All the while, she saved up enough money to open her own store, which she called Leslie’s Merchandise, named in honor of her firstborn niece.
Her store takes up more than one booth. Across the narrow walkway, the other booth sells soccer balls, dolls and fidget spinners, items that often catch the attention of kids who drag their parents to the booth.
As a mother of one, Jimenez says the mall “opened up its doors and arms to have me able to find work.” She said she came to this country alone, but made just enough friends to feel at home within the tight-knit immigrant community. She said she still encounters people who recognize her from the first store she worked at the mall.
Jimenez said her store has helped her to send her son to college.
“Everybody eats off this,” Jimenez said. “It’s the place where we all come to work to get ahead in life.”
Sarfraz Satti’s leather shop is the oldest store in the mall, and has been there since its opening in 1991. Satti’s store is filled with jackets, wallets, lottery tickets, digital slot machines and souvenirs, including shirts, clocks and glasses.
Satti said when he opened up the store over 30 years ago, he didn’t know he would be running it for so long. “Who knows, maybe I could have died sooner,” he laughs.
“I basically lived my whole life here,” said the 52-year-old Pakistani vendor who came to the United States in 1989. “I was at a very young age,” Satti said. “The Discount Mall was the best place for me. I opened up a store, and I bought a house. I got married, and I have two kids.”
Satti’s two kids have been able to grow up with the store, with his son joining the Army after graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago and his daughter going to college as well.
Satti said he would consider opening up shop somewhere else if he had the opportunity to do so. “Independent people like working for themselves; they don’t like to work for someone else,” he said.
But for now, he still holds the Discount Mall close to his heart.
“I grew up here and I have a lot of friends,” Satti said. “We’re basically like a family, you know, we come here. All my neighbors — (the) owners of different stores — we are friends and like we come together like, like at home.”
Eduardo Oliva had been selling cowboy hats and boots for Larre M Boots for 30 years when the company sent him to open a booth at the Discount Mall in 2016.
Oliva said the most popular item he has are the boots. “I sell them to everyone. It’s mostly to Latinos, but also to Black buyers and white buyers. And I sell them for everything — baptisms and First Communions, too.”
Oliva laments that there isn’t as much business for him or the other vendors at the Discount Mall when he set up shop seven years ago. Oliva says the rise of crime on 26th Street has discouraged people from coming.
“People are scared of coming, they say, ‘Oh, it’s getting late, we should head home,’ ” Oliva said.
Oliva’s booth is on the side of the Discount Mall that will remain open, but even if it wasn’t, he said he would continue to sell clothes.
“This is just what I like to do,” Oliva said. “The business and the boots. It’s my life.”
The store that Marta Zarate’s family owns inside the mall is unlike any other. They sell birds: yellow, orange, bright green birds. The chirping can be heard throughout the hallways.
“Don’t you get annoyed?” someone asked Marta as she tried to clean safflower seeds from the floor. She laughed: “I don’t pay attention to them anymore.”
It was Marta’s father who began to sell birds in the early ‘90s as a way to provide for his family, she said. He also taught her and her other six siblings that it “was better to be your own boss.”
“It’s good business,” she said.
The Zarate family has three shops at the mall, all of which they must vacate by the end of March.
“We are frustrated and can’t see past this,” said Juan Zarate, Marta’s brother.
The family owns several other shops in other malls and flea markets in the Chicago area. Most sell birds, but others also sell huipiles (embroidered cotton blouses) and huaraches (sandals), religious and spiritual items and more. The family all works together, she said.
But the stores in Little Village are the most profitable because people who visit the neighborhood also make a pit stop at the mall, Juan Zarate said.
Shoppers already walk in and know what they can find there, so opening a store elsewhere will be challenging for the family, he said.
“For many of us, this has been a dream,” he said.
His father and mother were also merchants in Mexico, Juan Zarate said. For now, the Zarate family businesses at the mall have no clear future.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, who represents Little Village, has been advocating for the displaced vendors. He said his office has demanded that all Novak’s permits and licenses be put on hold by the city until the company creates a new proposal.
“There’s no agreement unless all the businesses that are willing to stay are accommodated,” he said. “Otherwise, these improvements, or investment, in the so-called best interest of the community is simply not the case when we are displacing half of the small business vendors in the Discount Mall.”
Under the new lease, only 60% of the mall space will remain. But Novak will have no say in how Park chooses which vendors stay or if the leasing company will work with the vendors, said a company spokesperson.
“I think that (the renovated plaza) will serve as an anchor and a catalyst for that corridor and I believe it will bring jobs,” Paschen said. “We believe that Little Village deserves to have a first-class place to shop and that is what we’re planning to bring.”
Though most vendors and allies have spoken against the changes in the neighborhood, other community leaders say that the improvements to the plaza will benefit the community in the long term. One of those leaders is Jaime di Paulo, president and CEO of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a leading advocacy group, and former executive director of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce.
“The improvements planned for the Little Village shopping mall are testament to Novak’s commitment to the area and their contributions to growing local business opportunities,” said di Paulo, who added that the newly improved mall will enable current vendors to operate in a beautiful shopping center that visitors and the community deserve.
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